History Mystery: The Austrian Chemist with the Personal Collection in the Archive

In the (almost) two years since I joined the University Archive Service, after a Collections Audit and a complete move of the repositories, it sometimes feels like I’ve looked in every box we have!!  I haven’t of course, not by a long chalk, and I realised this yesterday after opening up a very ordinary looking box that was reboxed before the move to check its contents.  Underneath some Chemistry notes I discovered an ordinary, and rather flaky old box with the label on it ‘The Austrian Chemists Private Letters and Photos’ as you can see below:


So far and possibly you’re only excited if you’re involved in Chemistry, but after lifting the lid I made a wonderful discovery.  A whole treasure trove of personal papers of the ‘Austrian Chemist’.  Lots of 19th century family photographs, baptism certificates, school and PhD records, and many letters (alas all in German it appears!) back and forth between Huddersfield and Vienna.


So who is the mysterious ‘Austrian Chemist’?  And why are his personal papers in the University of Huddersfield archives?  Here’s what I managed to discover in about an hour on a quiet Thursday afternoon, research to be continued!  Thankfully, as my knowledge of German is restricted to ‘Ich habe ein mutter…’ etc there were a couple of documents in English amongst the collection.  A reference from a Huddersfield firm, Read Holliday and Sons Ltd.  Aniline Dye Manufacturers confirmed the spelling of his name, Dr Josef Petraczek, and that he was the Chemist we were looking for!  He had worked at Read for 16 years by the 29th December 1899, so we know he had to have come to England in about 1883.   This fits quite nicely as there are a couple of small pictures dated 1882 of some frankly quite science-y looking gentlemen, so possibly colleagues from Vienna?

A passport granted from the government of Franz Joseph I in 1882 seems to confirm the date he moved to the UK, and as for his time in England we know from membership cards he was a member of the Cricket and Athletic Club in 1885 and the Conservative Club in 1893-4.  Many of the letters are signed Mitzi, so were possibly written back to a sweetheart.  There is certainly what looks like a marriage invitation for a Josef and Marie, daughter of Josef and Anna Rahn on the 11th June 1885, which suggests a return to marry.  Then a couple of children seem to have been baptised in the Huddersfield area.  There is not much more to suggest anything about his life in the UK, which is when I turned to Google for assistance!  Putting in his name and place of work directed me to an online journal article which confirms Petraczek worked at Read Holliday (where he was known as the ‘German Emperor’!) and left to set up a chemical consulting company in Bradford with Christopher Rawson (1860-1940), that he was the first secretary of the Society of Dyers and Colourists an edited their journal.  Another footnote suggests he died sometime just before 1920, living at 9 Charles Street Bradford, and left an estate worth £8,878 (around £300K today).

So we know where he ended up, and there are plenty of photographs of him and his family, but where did he come from?  The records in the collection contain a number of educational certificates recording his progress through secondary education.  These are completed by his PhD dissertation booklet from the University of Zurich in 1883.  This confirms his supervisor was Professor Victor Meyer, and that Petraczek came from Czernowitz, Bukowina, which is also recorded on his school reports.  Many of the letters are from his future wife, and typing the address into google maps, plant him firmly within the university grounds in Zurich (a bit like living on the ring road if you study at Huddersfield!)

So an hour’s research, a bit of internet searching, and a helpfully diverse set of personal documents have helped us to shed some light on the mystery of the Austrian Chemist.  No doubt someone who could decipher late 19th century Austrian-German could add a bit more colour (excuse the colour chemistry pun there!) and context to this story, and the documents we can’t translate, like the correspondence and documents to do with travel and military service.  There’s definitely more to learn in the future.  So how did we end up with this archive?  Back to the original box they came out of, and those Chemistry notes I mentioned belonging to a former staff member from the Tech College days A.V. Schofield.  We can only assume at this point he must be our mysterious depositor, and the records have come along with other papers he deposited with the archive (or left in a drawer for his colleagues to deposit after his departure!)

Either way, a small yet fascinating personal collection of a late 19th century migrant to the area, involved in some of its biggest industries.  And once catalogued, potentially useful for the researchers of the future.  You never do quite know what you’re going to discover when you open an archive box!

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3 thoughts on “History Mystery: The Austrian Chemist with the Personal Collection in the Archive

  1. Oh, you’re right!

    The surname in the 1891 Census is mistranscribed (so took some finding) and gives him as married and living in at Bay Hall, Huddersfield, but his wife isn’t with him.

    However, she was definitely living with him in 1885, as there was a local court case involving an issue of unpaid rent. At that point, he was renting rooms at Poplar Villas, Halifax Old Road, and his wife is mentioned as living there. He was still occupying rooms there in January 1887, when the property was put up for sale by Messrs. Eddison & Taylor.

    He appears to have spent the summer of 1893 on the Isle of Man, where he appears on the “Visitors’ Lists” staying at Peveril House (from May until September, unless he paid two separate visits).

    In December 1896, he appeared as an expert witness at the inquest into the death of Mrs. Ellen Harral of Fartown. She had died after drinking the contents of a bottle of corrosive disinfectant (manufactured by Read Holliday & Co.) and Josef confirmed that, if taken in quantity, the liquid would be poisonous. Her death was ruled as suicide.

    The last reference I could find in the local newspapers is that Josef attended the funeral of Thomas Holliday in March 1898.


  2.   Lindsay Ince says:

    That’s really interesting! I wonder if the ‘single’ on the census return was a ‘lost in translation’ thing and he actually meant ‘widower’? In writing the post I had the wedding invite to hand that mentions a Josef (no surname) and Marie Rahn, but I’ve had a dig back through and found the two baptism records.

    There is a baptism of a daughter, Lucy Anna Maria Margaret, born 3 April 1886, baptised at St Patrick’s, Huddersfield, and then a son Oscar (with middle names I can’t make out) born 12 June 1889 in parish of St Ulrich, Vienna. Both Josef Petraczek and Marie Rahn are listed as parents in both cases. There’s a lot more on the son’s certificate but again in German!

    Which makes knowing what’s in the letters and documents that bit more tantalising! Was there a breakdown in the marriage, was he widowed, did they return to Austria for some reason? I think partially solved was pushing it a bit! Lots more to discover here!

  3. He was born around 1858 (give or take a year) and appears on the 1901 Census boarding at the house of William and Ann Clark, 97 Little Horton Lane, Bradford. William was a labourer on the Bradford Corporation Tramways. Josef (named Joseph on the census return) was a 42-year-old “analytical & consulting chemist” born in “Austria Czernowitz”.

    The 1911 Census has him boarding at the house of William and Mary F. Elmslie of 15 St. Paul’s Road, Bradford, where he gave his occupation as “consulting chemist”.

    Presumably he didn’t marry, as both the census returns say he was single.

    He died on 16 November 1918, aged 61, and was residing at 25 St. Paul’s Road, Manningham.

    He left a will and probate was eventually granted on 2 August 1919 to “aniline dye merchant” Francis Edward Craven (c.1868-1945). His effects were listed as being worth the rather considerable sum of £8,878 18s. 11d. (maybe the equivalent of about £500,000 today?). Might be worthwhile ordering a copy of his will!


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